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Old Time Outdoor Gospel Meetings
Wednesday, August 17, 2011 • Posted August 17, 2011

In the 1950’s, the summer months played host to quite a few outdoor gospel meetings around the county, especially in the rural congregations. Perhaps it was because larger than usual crowds attended, and the smaller church buildings could not hold the increase. Perhaps it was a lingering touch of nostalgia back to the days when old-time camp meetings that lasted up to four weeks brought large numbers of people from all over the area. Regardless, at least the weekend services were usually held outside under a brush arbor that had been erected in a pasture not far from the regular meeting place.

Services were held under the arbor during gatherings on Saturday and two or three times on Sunday. One or more afternoon services were held on those days, and lunch on the grounds always accompanied the Sunday morning service. The fixings were spread out along long plywood-covered tables sectioned off to include every kind of food category you can imagine, all prepared by the members, and served buffet, pot-luck style. Categories included salads of every variety, but especially several versions of potato salad and coleslaw. It was hard to serve gelatin salads due to lack of refrigeration, and pasta salads were not as popular as they are now. Although the ladies were adept at making homemade bread, the main bread at these functions was store bought. It was the kind of bread many older folks still call "light bread," which today is consider the least healthy kind and often referred to as "sandwich bread." It is only white and fairly thin sliced. But, in the 50’s, it was perhaps the best choice due to convenience and practical usage as an accompaniment to the standard meat choice for these events—barbeque. People liked to soak up the juice and sauce from the barbeque with that style of bread.

Today there are certain expectations regarding barbeque, which typically includes beef and some sausage. Beef is the most common meat by choice, followed by pork, but in the 1950’s, the barbeque main stay was most likely GOAT. Beef was more costly, and it took a lot of meat to feed a large crowd. The goats were always donated from private individuals, and local members killed, dressed, and cooked the meat themselves. I can recall watching my brother-in-law go through all the steps to get the goat ready, which I won’t go into detail since parts are a bit gory. No one seemed to miss the fact that there was less beef served. It seems there was also less poultry available too. Perhaps this was because so many of the rural ladies still relied on their hens to provide eggs and couldn’t afford to slaughter them to feed large crowds either.

People were more accustomed to eating goat, and the meat provided some characteristics less likely to be found in beef. For one thing, it was stringier and could be separated more easily by a fork. It’s not overly dry, but it is chewier, which is what I liked best about it. A lot of the meat is more akin to the end pieces found on beef brisket. The taste is slightly different from beef, but if the meat is fresh and prepared properly, the difference in taste is not as significant as the differences in texture. One thing that made the meat juicy was the SOP applied as it cooked, and the frequency of applying the sop. In lieu of brushes, homemade versions were created out of a mesquite limb or a fork around which a gauze type cloth/rag was wrapped at the end of the wood, like a large Q-tip. Sops were as simple as Worcestershire sauce, water, and vinegar, or might include other spices and tomato products more like typical barbeque sauces.

A large portion of the buffet table at these outdoor gospel meetings included desserts, especially cakes, pies, and cobblers. Banana pudding was common, but once again, due to lack of refrigeration, no desserts that required cooling. Crusts for pies and cobblers were homemade, and cakes were always from scratch. No one had heard of cake mixes or prepared pie crusts. Most women, like my mother, did not have a recipe for their pie crust, which was always perfectly textured and flaky. My mother’s grandmother taught her to make pie crusts on an old bread board that had been hewed from a log by a former slave at Old Bluffton. The main test for the mixture’s readiness was by texture only. Pies ranged from custards, such as lemon, chocolate, and coconut, with fluffy, piled-high meringue, to every kind of fruit pie or cobbler imaginable, which always included peach and apple, or other seasonal fruits grown from the preparer’s own trees. Cakes were either pound cake style or three layer cakes. Bundt pans were not common place, nor were sheet cakes. Vegetable dishes mostly came from something right out of the family’s own garden, such as corn, black-eyed peas, snap green beans, etc. Other standard dishes were pinto beans and different potato selections, but no casseroles. You could always count on plenty of sliced tomatoes, cucumbers, and onions. The only pasta served would be macaroni and cheese. Water and tea were usually the only available beverages.

If the sermon topics delivered at these arbor meetings weren’t a bit heated, the temperature outside was HOT enough to compensate. The minister always had a wooden pulpit, or at least a lectern. Persons in attendance sat around the preacher on long wooden benches or pews. By the 1950’s, night sermons were electrically lighted, but the only cooling devices were from whatever breeze flowed through the open air walls. Night services were tolerable, but those mid-afternoon ones were scorchers. Ladies usually brought personal folding fans to furnish a breeze, but most people relied on the old style fans mounted on a large wooden stick that looked like a recycled tongue depressor. These were the heavier cardboard shaped fans that funeral homes frequently used for advertising. They could not be rolled up and folded when not in use, like the ones privately owned. This weekend I was reminded of these fans when the power went off about half way through the morning sermon at our worship service. Without air conditioning, in less than five minutes, I looked around the auditorium and saw six or seven persons using their church bulletin as a fan, most who were women. Within ten minutes, I began to smell every woman’s perfume who sat near me. I had not thought how cooler temperatures kept smells in check, but then I remembered always smelling whatever fragrance my great aunts wore at those old time gospel meetings.

The singing at these arbor meetings was wonderful. Maybe because there were no confining walls, people felt more relaxed about opening up and lifting their voices in praise. The songs were typical old-time religious hymns that most everyone knew by memory, although I do recall there being soft-back hymnals available. Songs were sung from the heart, and when combined with the voices of others, the sound was heavenly. Especially enjoyable were the rich, deep bass voices of the men in the audience.

As a kid, I can’t remember if I looked forward to these meetings or not. It seems they were always in the hottest part of the summer, but since the arbor did provide a nice shade and some breeze, most of the services were not unpleasant, unless the speaker got long winded. Those afternoon services could have been cancelled as far as I was concerned, not only because of the heat, but also because they interfered greatly with the children’s playing time. Although I don’t know how we entertained ourselves, I do know I always had a good time playing with my many cousins and other friends in attendance.

Although meetings such as these were held all over the county, I mostly attended the ones at Valley Spring and Lone Grove, where so many of my relatives lived nearby. I don’t remember what the adults did between services, although most did not go home. The men probably sat around and talked or perhaps played dominos or forty-two. The women congregated wherever they could be semi-cool and visited, while checking periodically on the kids who had scattered. Younger children took a nap on a quilt pallet somewhere, maybe even on the ground. I don’t recall, but I’ll bet my great aunts at Lone Grove crocheted or embroidered on something while they talked non-stop. They were never women of a few words.

I have vivid memories of several of the old style preachers at these meetings: Brother L.V. Nobles, who periodically thundered away during his presentations, or Silas Howell, whose style was more gentle persuasion. Both men were loved by many throughout Llano and adjacent counties for the many years of service they provided the community during their lifetime, whether it was sermons, benevolence, or performing weddings and funerals.

I don’t recall any brush arbors in the town of Llano, but large tents were set up some of the time for special gatherings, mostly on the north side of town. Of course, in town most church buildings could accommodate larger crowds and had no need for additional space. When gospel meetings were held in any of the congregations, they usually lasted a full six or seven days, always beginning or ending on a Sunday. Visiting ministers stayed in the homes of members, who also provided all meals during the week. In recent years, although some meals are provided by individuals, the guest speaker spends most nights in a local motel. They often prefer the freedom to work on their lesson presentations without interferences.

I liked the atmosphere an open air church service created, a type of oneness with nature and a closer connection to fellow worshipers. Let’s face it. We are greatly spoiled in the world we live in today. Air conditioning has become a way of life, and few would prefer to trade it in for the sake of a brush arbor. Nostalgia only goes so far.

Sources: Personal memories and interviews; GEM OF THE HILL COUNTRY (p. 58)

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